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As one of the smallest countries in continental Africa, what do you do if you cannot play your way to a major international tournament? In Equatorial Guinea's case the answer was simple. You buy your way in.
Aided by the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves that prompted huge economic growth in the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea found the resources possible to mount a joint bid with neighbours Gabon. After seeing off competition from Nigeria, in 2006 they were named joint hosts for what will be their first ever African Cup of Nations.
In a sense, therefore, the challenge is already won for the Nzalang Nacional. As a nation with just 2,300 registered players merely competing on such a stage is impressive enough. Loftier ambitions must be considered unrealistic. A comparative lack of competitive football having qualified as hosts only puts them at further disadvantage.
A further blow was the loss in December of veteran French coach Henri Michel, African football's serial hired hand. Michel cited 'repeat interference' as reason for leaving his eleventh post in Africa, leaving Brazilian coach Gilson Paulo to take over on a two-month contract that tells you everything you need to know about any plans for long-term development. Guinean officials described Michel's resignation, not one month before the team's opening game, as 'sabotage'.
One of Michel's principal complaints while in charge was over what he interpreted as meddling by the son of Equatorial Guinea's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa's longest serving leader, described as a 'despotic ruler' and accused by Human Rights Watch of using an oil boom to "entrench and enrich [his dictatorship] at the expense of the country's people."
Despite having one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in Africa according to the World Bank in 2009, social inequality in Equatorial Guinea is desperate. The most recent Household Expenditure Survey in 2006 showed that 70% of the population live below the poverty line, despite the country's newfound wealth, and investment in social-sector developments have dragged.
In 2010 Transparency International brought a case against the Obiang family accusing it of laundering the nation's riches. It reported that the Obiang family's assests - including eight luxury cars in France worth €4.2million - were worth far in excess of what the family officially earn.
Differences of opinion are often poorly received. Ahead of last year's African Union summit – hosted by Equatorial Guinea - Amnesty International reported that political opponents of Obiang, as well as up to 100 students, had been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge.
"President Obiang’s government is already among the worst human rights abusers in Africa and the continuing persecution of political opponents is deplorable," said Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director.
It is against this backdrop that Michel tried to bring his experience to a team facing huge challenges. Ruslan Obiang, the president's son, worked with Michel in his capacity as Secretary of State for Youth and Sports, but the pair clashed on a number of issues, team selection being one. Nicknamed 'the sorceror', Michel wanted to forge a tight knit group of preferably local based players. The president's son felt differently.
Obiang favoured a more exotic blend of overseas-based, naturalised Equatoguineans. The dispute had already forced Michel to resign once last October, but he reneged on his decision a week later. The final straw came when Equatorial Guinea's preliminary Cup of Nations squad was announced and, according to Michel, "a player was added to the list without permission."
With that in mind, Paulo's 23-man squad makes for interesting reading. Ten of the 23 ply their trade overseas in Spain, land of the old colonial rulers, while others like Brazil-born keeper Danilo, Liberian Lawrence Doe and the Cameroonian striker Thierry Fidjeu, are naturalised representatives. Meanwhile five local based players called up by Michel for the Nzalang Nacional's World Cup 2014 preliminary round qualifier triumph over Madagascar in November were omitted.
President Obiang has boldly declared that he expects Equatorial Guinea to go all the way at this Cup of Nations. "Not only do we want the national team to display attractive football and sporting values, we also want them to win the Cup. The trophy must remain in Equatorial Guinea," he stated. But really this is a pipe dream. The squad is arguably the weakest in the competition.
Defensively they can be compact - three clean sheets in their last seven games offers some hope - but in reality their current FIFA ranking of 150th in the world (41st in Africa!) tells its own story.
Deportivo La Coruna forward Rodolfo Bodipo is captain and leader, the nation's best known player, while Javier Balboa's career highlight is scoring for Real Madrid. They along with Fidjeu will be looked to for creativity and firepower.
Kicking off against Libya, the home support they receive in Bata will need to be at its boisterous best if Equatorial Guinea are to have any hopes of a respectable campaign. Tough games against Senegal and Zambia follow. It is therefore very difficult to see how Paulo can manufacture anything other than a nice bit of international coaching experience for himself during this brief stint in charge. After the tournament he will return to his administrative position at Vasco da Gama's academy in Brazil.
In managing to qualify for the World Cup in Germany last year Equatorial Guinea's women delighted the entire nation and were celebrated as heroes. Now it's over to the men.
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